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School Trustees Responses

6. Research Findings:

6.1. Stated drugs policies

All schools taking part in this project forbade cannabis use at school or during school hours. Use of alcohol or tobacco was also forbidden. However, not all of the schools had a specific policy for the management of students caught with cannabis, and in such cases management was based on the policy for general disciplinary issues. In two cases, our request that the school be involved in this research prompted the establishment or revision of the school’s drugs policy. In another case, the research coincided with a review of policy and the interview process was considered helpful in clarifying issues.

Although schools had to consider each case individually, in all but one school the usual course of management for students caught with cannabis was for the principal to immediately suspend those involved. Suspension was usually indefinite and, as was the requirement, these cases then came before the board to consider and decide on ongoing management.

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6.2. How the cannabis was discovered

There were a number of ways in which cannabis use or possession came to the attention of the teachers/principal In some situations the students were caught outright. In others they were approached after information from other students or parents was given to the principal or a teacher. When other students had informed teachers, there was the difficulty of ensuring the students were rewarded for their behaviour without putting them in an embarrassing or difficult situation with their peers for 'telling tales'. Reporting on one such incident, a respondent stated:

It was very carefully done. No-one was ever told the identity of the kids who came in but they were acknowledged. They found some way to give them a special certificate to recognise the fact that they had done this sort of thing without naming what they had done. They said these kids .... must be rewarded because they have taken responsibility for their school.

One respondent arranged for all staff at the school to attend a session about cannabis at which they were shown samples. The aim of this session was to ensure that all teachers were able to identify cannabis and signs of use so that those teachers who did report possession or use by students were not implicating themselves as apparent users.

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6.3. The procedure

The initial steps:

Although differences occurred in the strategies or approaches used for subsequent management of students, all but one of the schools taking part in this study suspended students for involvement with cannabis in the first instance. Even boards which were strongly opposed to the continued suspension/expulsion of students nevertheless accepted that students be suspended temporarily initially. For the purposes of this study then a distinction needs to be made between an initial (or temporary) suspension which usually lasted no longer than 7 days and an extended or continued suspension which could last for weeks or months or go on indefinitely, being akin to an expulsion.

The one school which had not immediately suspended students for cannabis involvement reported the incident had occurred just prior to the interview and that it was the school’s first. In line with the general philosophy of the school, the incident was dealt with in ‘a constructive rather than punitive way’ by considering it a ‘health and life-chances issue in the first instance’. Rather than focusing on and accusing a small group of individuals, a larger `at-risk’ group of students were identified, all of whom had had some link with the cannabis incident or those directly involved. These students and their families/whanau were invited to attend a seminar on cannabis given by a member of the Drugs Squad. In a letter sent to parents it was made clear that the students were not being accused of drug use but they were considered `at risk’. In addition, the school offered additional help to those who needed it in the way of guidance or counselling. All students and their families were made aware, however, that drug use in the school would not be tolerated and that any further infringement of this rule would result in immediate suspension and a disciplinary hearing before the Board. Parental response to this approach was extremely positive.

In those schools where the students were immediately suspended by the principal, the students’ parents were notified, given an explanation of the incident and asked to take their child home. The students were then not allowed back to school and were required, with their parents/whanau, to attend the disciplinary hearing with the Board of Trustees at which their future would be decided. Parents were given a written report about the incident before this meeting and were advised that they could bring an advocate if they wanted. In addition, school guidance counselling services were offered to students should they need them.

Although the use and possession of cannabis is illegal, no legal action ensued from the incidents. The Youth Aid section of the Police were called in some cases, but it was felt that they could do little more than the schools were doing. However, some schools invited either the Police or a member of the Drugs Squad to address those students involved about the consequences of cannabis use. One school involved the Police to establish that the substance was in fact cannabis before proceeding with suspension.

The Board of Trustees Disciplinary Hearing:

All the respondents interviewed indicated that, when a student was suspended in the first instance by the principal, they were aware of their legal obligation under the Education Act 1989 to meet with them and their family/whanau within a specified period of time and to give them a fair hearing. They received a detailed report of the incident from the principal at least 24 hours before the meeting and met together as a board just prior to meeting with the student in order to discuss the case. Three main options were open to the board: to consider the process to date sufficient to prevent a recurrence of the behaviour and to lift the suspension; to reinstate the student with certain conditions; or to expel or indefinitely suspend the student.

When a number of students were suspended together, they and their family/whanau were usually given the option of meeting with the board individually or collectively (on a marae, if requested). Some boards met with them together initially, then with each family separately. Two respondents related incidents where a joint meeting of all students and their families had occurred but had not worked very well and the cases were not adequately dealt with until each was seen individually. One of the other advantages of seeing students individually was that they were not constrained by a need to impress their peers.

Boards needed to be convinced that what was reported to have happened actually happened and this depended on an admission from the student. Some board members commented that if the student denied their involvement, the board had to give them the benefit of the doubt. Since the board’s role was not a legal one, board members did not want to go to great lengths to prove or disprove that particular students were involved. Instead they relied on the student's integrity and the stories of other students involved to ascertain who was involved. One respondent said,

We have to be convinced that that’s what they've done. If there is any doubt in the board's mind we do not expel under any circumstances for whatever reason they are in front of us. If there is some doubt then its given to the student and the student goes back into school..…..We're not an investigation firm so we've got to say to ourselves "Hey, listen is this person really doing it or not?". We might have all the evidence in the world and to us it’s really not good enough if the parents and the child come out and say "No, we're not users". Now if the parents say "Oh yes, we do have a problem" and the kid is sitting there saying "No", then we usually say to the parents "Well, what do you think?"

However, one respondent commented that this can lead to some difficulties in situations where, despite strong indications that they had been involved with cannabis, a student refuses to acknowledge it. She gave an example in which her board felt that they could not punish harshly those students who had confessed and been very honest about their involvement when another student, who they strongly suspected of being involved, was not punished at all because he would not admit to being involved.

In general, respondents indicated that their board took its responsibilities very seriously, that it wanted to do what was best for the student and the school and was aware that its decision could have a profound impact on the student’s life. Some stressed that an important part of the disciplinary hearing was to try to obtain an understanding of the student’s life situation and what may have caused them to act as they had. They also impressed upon students that their actions had consequences for which they must take responsibility.

All respondents were aware of the need to inform students that they could bring advocate(s) to the meeting with the board, and it appeared that students and their families often did so. One respondent commented that a good advocate who represented the student’s interests by building on their positive qualities could facilitate a favourable outcome for the student.

If you've got somebody, a strong advocate, who's actually able to articulate the strengths of the student, particularly those we might not otherwise be aware of, I guess that does play quite an important part in our decision making.

Three respondents commented that the involvement of an advocate who took an adversarial position did not necessarily make the process easier or fairer. The adversarial approach was perceived to be obstructive and antagonistic to the more collaborative or inclusive approach taken by these boards.

But [the advocates] come in and, instead of doing it as a healing process whereby you get to the truth and you try and work it out and you do the best for the kids, they're actually coming from ‘you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty’ and letting the kids know that and that you don't have to admit to anything. I know where they're coming from but they're not helping those kids, the 14 year olds, in their development.

The process of coming to a decision about the student’s future was often time-consuming because the different views of board members had to be considered and a consensus had to be reached. However, in general respondents indicated that they were happy with the processes they undertook and that board members were prepared to put in the time to ensure that the final decision was one that they all found acceptable.

It's often a compromise. Some people would say, "It's their lives and we can't kick them out no matter what they have done, if we believe that they are contrite." And at the other extreme, there are probably one or two that say we aren’t kicking out enough. Eventually we come through to a decision. We have a big discussion and it’s not fast, it’s a slow process, but you have to do it properly.

Terms of reinstatement:

The decision to reinstate a student, rather than extend their suspension indefinitely or expel, depended on the particular circumstances of the case, the previous behaviour of the student and the general philosophy of the school. Where a student was reinstated, conditions were usually imposed. The conditions set by boards ranged from those which emphasised the health needs of the student to those which were strictly punitive. Some schools instituted both types of conditions.

Conditions of reinstatement which primarily focused on the wellbeing of the student included the requirement to attend a drug education programme or a drug rehabilitation or, doing a project on the dangers of drugs or attending guidance counselling with the school counsellor. One school had a scheme in which students identified as `at risk’ for general behavioural problems were assigned a case manager, and recommended that students reinstated after cannabis incidents join this scheme. The aim of these approaches was to ensure that the students received both the knowledge and support they needed to promote their educational and physical well being. Some schools restricted these conditions to `good’ students who had made a `mistake’, while others also used them for those students who had more general behavioural problems.

Normally we put them back into school if we feel they got caught up with their peers and just happened to have a puff or two and they were just part of the scene that was happening. We would then encourage them to go to the counsellors.

I’m thinking of a couple of youngsters in this last month or so. The board took the view that this was an experimental puff and that they had learnt a huge lesson and were very contrite. So we used the school counselling service and school guidance.

We really aim to rehabilitate. We don’t aim to be absolutely punitive. Because in our experience kids smoking dope at school is just a brazen act of stupidity, really…. We're a very student-centred school and we really try to set a kid on the right path in terms of making their education worthwhile. Because there's nothing worse than, say, teachers or a whole group of teachers spending four years or so with a kid, working really hard with the money, to have them expelled for an act of stupidity…. Obviously each case is different but most of the hearings take two hours or something, and in two hours you can do quite a lot of setting straight.

We sit down, we talk to the kids. We talk to them about what's happening, about why they're smoking drugs, we talk about whether they're using it outside, we tell them that we've got no jurisdiction over what they're doing outside, unless they come in under the influence of course….We talk to them about what it's doing, about things like drug rehab programmes. Frequently they are required to go through one of the drug rehab courses which the guidance counsellor will often source for them.

Some schools took a more punitive approach to the issue, although stopping short of further suspension/expulsion. Conditions of reinstatement which were of a punitive nature included detentions, withdrawal of privileges and community service. Separation from one’s peers was also a punishment although in some cases this intervention was used more to remove the student from adverse peer influences. Community service, either inside the school or in the local community, was commonly mentioned as a condition of reinstatement. The number of hours of service was stipulated and this had to be undertaken in the student's own time. If it was within the school, it was usually done during breaks or after school. This had the added benefit of preventing the student mixing with his/her friends and being tempted to ‘re-offend’ for the duration of the punishment. If the community service was done outside the school, it was essential that it was able to be well monitored by a responsible adult. Some schools required written contracts, signed by the student, a parent and the principal, under which the student promised to abide by certain rules and undertake certain tasks for a stated period of time. This was then monitored by staff. One school in an area with perceived high levels of cannabis use in the community insisted that the Youth Aid branch of the local Police monitor those students who had conditional reinstatement.

There may be a punishment involved. For example: community service of some sort, which could be painting the walls in the school or something like that; withdrawal of privileges; and maybe some sort of detention. In some cases we might get them to report back to the board a couple of times and perhaps write a letter of apology or something like that, depending on how they have been caught, and how they have dealt with the situation when they were caught.

There hasn’t been one case that I’m aware of where we have expelled the kids straight away, because generally they're very contrite. And we always give them pretty severe punishments in terms of depriving them of their privileges in school - meaning that during their free time they are not able to enjoy the company of their friends. So they are basically given quite a long period of social misery. It’s all that's left to a school really, and in terms of sanctions, you can't actually do much.

When a student was reinstated, all the schools were adamant that this was not to be seen as a soft option. Rather, it was a warning that any further offending would be taken very seriously and possibly result in suspension/expulsion.

On top of that will be signing a contract acknowledging wrong-doing and spelling out as much as we dare the realisation that they are in a last chance situation, that in the event of a breach the understanding is quite clearly that they would have no second chances. Now the wording is a little careful there, because again we believe that the law says that you have to be quite careful about saying you have used up all your chances… so we genuinely mean that, yes, you will have another fair hearing, but all of what you have done will be taken into account.

But if it goes on and we're not satisfied that things are happening or they are not adhering to the conditions of going back into school, we will pull them out and expel them. That hasn't happened, though. Where we have put kids back into school for whatever reason, usually they pull up their socks and realise that they have to do something about it.

I think that [expulsion] is really unfair. So that's what we try and avoid. It's much too high a price to pay. But if the kid does it again, then as far as I'm concerned that's an admission that that's the price they want to pay. And we make it very clear at the beginning, if we're reinstating them, that will be the only time they'll be reinstated.

Respondents reported that the parents of children who were reinstated were very grateful to the school and the board for the processes undertaken. It seemed that parents were supportive of firm management of their children, but were grateful that this did not extend to suspension/expulsion. In fact, some respondents reported that, following such decisions, the school received phone calls from parents expressing their gratitude and praising the way in which their child had been dealt with. One intermediate school which was very public with its processes also received calls from parents of other students praising the boards management of the incident. However, one respondent from a liberal school reported that parental response to their reinstating students was sometimes mixed, with both expressions of gratitude for the process used and blame because the school had exposed their child to the drug in the first place.

It’s one of incredible gratitude for a second chance option for their kids and a real genuine commitment to try and assist their own child to see the error of their ways. There are also some concerns that "my child would never have done this if it wasn't for the fact that it is so prevalent at the school"…. So there’s that split feeling there. "If the school was clean then my child wouldn't have been involved" and then, on the other hand, a great appreciation from them that they've been given a pretty fair sort of a hearing.

The decision to extend suspension or expel:

Some schools took a strong moral stand on all cannabis incidents believing that the most appropriate action was extended suspension/expulsion. Others chose this option in cases which they considered to be particularly serious. If the board's decision was indefinite suspension until the student's 16th birthday, the school was required to find the student another school. The principal usually took on this responsibility and it appeared that there were cooperative relations on such matters between principals in the same geographical area. Sometimes neither staff nor students were aware that a new student who had been accepted by the principal had been suspended from another school. Schools were entitled to refuse a student who had been suspended in the first instance, but if a school was not found for the student within a reasonable period of time, the Ministry of Education intervened and could require a school to take the student. Because of the initial right of refusal, however, finding another school could be a delicate process. Several respondents referred to the Activity Centre or Metropolitan School as useful last resorts for students caught with cannabis who had also been disciplined frequently for general behavioural problems and who were difficult to place elsewhere. Some expressed concern about anecdotal comments that these schools’ existence might be in jeopardy because of their unconventional approach to education.

When a board was deciding whether to extend suspension or not, the seriousness of the incident was a consideration. For example, it was more likely that a person supplying cannabis to others would have their suspension extended than one who was caught simply possessing or using. The act of supplying cannabis, even if no money was involved, meant that the student was considered to be endangering other students’ well-being. The student’s past record was also taken into account. If they had a history of ‘bad behaviour’, the cannabis incident might be considered the ‘last straw’.

In some cases, board members saw extending suspension indefinitely or expelling the student as in the student’s interest because it enabled them to break out of a peer group or a situation which was not good for them and to start anew. In reference to a student who had brought cannabis to school for others, one respondent said:

We felt that he couldn't come back [into the school] and not be pressured again. So at that stage we said it was better for him to get a fresh start at a new school and we found one that was easy for him to go to. And that's some of it, it's better for them not to be with that same group of kids again.

Alternatively, the decision may have been made in the interests of other students. This was particularly so when the student was known to have supplied cannabis or to have a history of disruptive behaviour.

In the last case that came before the board, there were reasons for expelling the student in combination with the cannabis offence, shall we say. There was a history of bad behaviour. There was a child who was able to influence her peers and we felt therefore that in taking her out of the school and putting her into another group, she would no longer have that group to be led by her.

Even when expulsion was the outcome, some boards felt it necessary to work through the issues with the student, rather than simply ‘off- load’ the student.

I don't think we've ever had one that we can't find a school for.... and I think people do realise that we work through things with these kids. And this is what we say to the parents - if we don't work through with you, we can't recommend to another school. And you've got to have that recommendation from the last school. Because people won't touch you. They know they don’t have to take you.

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6.4. Decision-making dilemmas for board members

The decisions faced by the board were not taken lightly and several dilemmas encountered while making these decisions were mentioned.

The interests of the student versus the interests of the school:

A commonly mentioned dilemma was trying to find a balance between what was in the best interests of the student and what was in the best interests of the school or of other students within the school. This involved weighing up the message given to society and other students that drugs would not be tolerated in school, versus making sure that the educational future of the student was not jeopardised.

One respondent, whose board was in the process of deciding the future of a bright student who had supplied cannabis to other students, stated:

Practicalities say we should expel him, but as educationalists we don't want to see wasted talent. I don't, I definitely don't. But again the point is, how safe is he going to be in the school and how safe are the other pupils going to be?.... So what do we do, throw him out? Because he's a Maori too. Personally I'm sick of seeing Maori [statistics] somewhere down the bottom. And here's a child that has the ability, given the right mental support, to achieve in a big way. But our responsibility to the other kids is a priority.

Another whose school took a fairly firm stand on cannabis stated:

Well, the main issue is always the responsibility and obligation the college has for the needs of that particular student, as against the need for the other students of the college to know that that behaviour is unacceptable. And to try to ensure that other students are not harmed by the actions of that particular student. It's always a big problem and I think I could probably say that our board always wrestles with that. Because we're not the sort of board that would be too hasty expelling a student. I suppose that's part of our school philosophy, that we have a strong emphasis upon care of the student. We have a pastoral care committee which does a lot of work on tending to the needs of the students within the college.

When asked what the board then does in that situation, he replied:

I suppose we just try to weigh up as best we can what might be the consequences of the student remaining in the college. One of the things that would come in to that is whether there's been any earlier behavioural problems, the seriousness of the incident itself, and perhaps even if there's been any indication of contempt for college rules. I mean, if the student's been told not to smoke, or not to have alcohol, or not to do this or that previously. Is this incident also in the light of contempt for school discipline rules? Also we would take in to account what steps the student or their parents have taken to deal with the problem, and I think it's true to say that we would be influenced enough in a kindly way towards somebody who had actually done something about their problem, if there was seen to be a problem.

Another consideration which added to boards’ decision-making dilemmas and difficulties was how their decisions might affect the already heavy workload of teachers. Given the demands already on teachers to undertake social and disciplinary responsibilities over and above their teaching responsibilities, some boards expressed reluctance to place too much extra pressure on them by reinstating students with conditions which required a lot of monitoring.

Really you are coming down to - do we continue the suspension or do we bring them back in? And then if we are going to bring them back into the school, is that going to involve an awful lot of teacher time and effectively human and other resources? If they are doing community service, for example, that is going to take some form of supervision, normally by the teacher? If it’s going to be perhaps counselling, again it's taking up someone’s time.

There have been suggestions from time to time that, if we have been a little bit soft, shall we say, and perhaps allowed a student to come back to college in a cannabis situation, some teachers have been upset by that because they see it as undermining the discipline of the college. And their expectation, I suppose, would have been that in that particular case the student would be expelled. So that really makes it even more difficult for us to balance the decision to be made.

Avoiding passing on the problem to other schools:

Some respondents were concerned that suspension/expulsion should not be used to transfer problems onto other schools. They were aware that this did not necessarily serve the student or the new school well.

We are more seriously considering the effects of that expulsion on the child and on the school that they are going to. And really we are saying we cannot just off-load our problems onto another school. I think perhaps that did happen a bit in the past.

Both intermediate school respondents felt that it was important to be very firm with students caught with cannabis because it would be more readily available to them at secondary school. However, they wanted to deal with the issue internally and did not see passing it on to another school to be the solution. One respondent from an intermediate school stated:

We dealt with it harshly. The kids were all punished and it wasn't just, "You naughty boy, you shouldn't have done that". They were all seen to be being punished but because they were only kids - at that age they are still only kids - we didn't take the hard line of disrupting their entire lives. I mean we've disrupted their lives enough by what we're doing at school. But we're keeping it within the school. We're dealing with it ourselves as opposed to putting the problem on to somebody else. You know, these are our kids and we'll deal with them, type of thing, as opposed to, "this kid’s been naughty, you take him".

Attracting students to the school:

Some schools were concerned that their involvement in cannabis issues might mean that they would not be able to attract new students to the school and that if their rolls dropped they could lose staff, since staffing levels each year are based on the number of students enrolled. This meant that they had to be seen to be taking a firm line because some parents would be wary of sending their children to schools that were known to have drugs.

If you're seen to be too light on these things, parents won't send their kids to the school, because they think, "oh, that's a drugs school", where in actual fact we're trying to rid the problem. We had to take into consideration what parents not at the school now are thinking about doing with their children next year, because if the school roll drops we lose staff.

An intermediate school which provided manual skills programmes for students from other schools also had its reputation to protect.

We have to look at how this is going to affect our other children in the school and our reputation as far as our visiting schools go. …So our manual schools won't turn around and say, "Hey, look. they've got dope in that school, we don't want our school going there."

Going public about the incident:

Concern about the reputation of the school was an issue in trying to decide whether to be public about the incidents. Some schools felt it was important to bring the issue out into the open to avoid rumour and speculation. This was seen as a positive gesture in that it signalled acknowledgement of the problem and an openness in dealing with it. However, it also ran the risk of media attention which branded the school as one with drug problems.

People looked at us when we made it public. "Oh, you're bringing our school into bad repute.".... Basically why we went public was to say, "Hey, we are dealing with the problem, we were dealing with it in a positive way so that the people know what's happening, so that the school knows that this does not happen every day".

It was all around this local school that now we're not only a rough school but we're also a `drug' school. The fact that we dealt with it and we didn't hide it or anything, people just don't think about that.

So you are actually drawing attention, not to attempting to have a solution, but to a drug problem which may exacerbate and worsen the view of your contributing public. So rather than getting positive feedback from people saying, "look, they're doing something, They’re trying something and tightening the place up", you could equally get a negative reaction of … "they must be having real problems".

One respondent commented that there was little media coverage of the positive ways in which schools were dealing with cannabis, and this meant that those schools that were dealing with it well were not visible to the public.

Use in the community:

Another point made was that, because cannabis use was common in the wider community and, in some cases, within the student’s own home, it was unfair or ineffective to severely punish the individual child.

I'm just aghast when I hear schools expelling kids, punishing them, ruining their lives basically for an indiscretion….. In the wider community that all the kids come from, people smoke dope all the time. That's totally apparent from newspapers and everything... It’s so widespread in society and to have a kid expelled, well their education's ruined really and you're just doing such a bad thing for that kid.

A lot of schools don’t want to admit that there is an under current of drug use, not so much with the children, but with the families. It’s easy for us to pick up on the children, but the fall down is when they go home. There’s no support from homes.

On the other hand, while acknowledging this view, one respondent believed that, because cannabis use was against the law, the student needed to face the consequences.

I think some people are of a mind that "Look, we’ve three generations of smoking cannabis, it’s not wrong"…. And they can’t see why students should be dragged out because of it… (But) the law tells us they have broken the law, therefore we have to do something about it.

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